Co-Authors: Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova & Dr Zuzana Palovic
The Voices of the East: Perspectives in a Divided Europe? Series Part #9
The youngest country in Europe is miracle born out of imperial ashes and the rubble of former Yugoslavia. Its story is as unparalleled as it is painful. Over the course of two millennia, Kosovo was swallowed by the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires before transitioning into the Kingdom and later the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The small nation still awaiting its international birth certificate is a collection of paradoxes. Overwhelmingly Albanian in its ethnicity, the roots of its culture and language reach into the depths of an elusive ancient Illyrian tribe. For much of the 20th century, the Kosovan people were held by the tight grip of Serbia until 1999. When the rest of the Eastern Bloc was transitioning towards democracy and the free market, Kosovo was only beginning its fight for freedom.
It was during the duress of war-torn Balkans that the world took a stand. In late 2000s, it was decided that the safest and only option for Europe was an independent and sovereign Kosovo. However, the troubled and very recent history continues to hinder Kosovo’s ascension to the international scene. Yet, the country remains hopeful. The fact that its state and economy are still in the making does nothing to limit the potential of the Kosovan human capital or dim the freshness of its vision.
Mr Lirim Greiçevci shares insights into Kosovo’s thorny path to independence that he has been a part of from the very beginning. As he talks about the difficult relationship with stubborn Serbia, an uplifting message emerges from his reflections. People who embody integrity and combine compassion with practicality, always find a keen ear and a helping hand. Kosovo serves as a reminder that hatred and fear have short legs, while forgiveness, tolerance and patience flank the road to peace and success.
We were part of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years and many people converted to Islam.
Kosovo was once a part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire and after that conquered by the Ottomans. We stayed under their control for 500 years. Before that, Kosovan Albanians were predominantly Christians. Once we were integrated into the Ottoman realm, most people converted to its culture and its religion. That was the only way, we could participate in the public life of the empire. It is also why the alliance with the Ottoman Empire was so strong for us.
There was no national indigenous movement within the country.
The downside was that there were no foundations for intellectuals to grow from, within our culture at home. The Ottomans did now allow schools in Albanian.
The Ottomans were seen as a protector.
When other Balkan countries joined forces with Russia in the run up to WW1, the Albanians found themselves in a tricky lot. Afraid that they would lose their territory to the neighbouring countries, our people decided to side with the Ottomans. We were not a part of the regional fight against their empire, which is why when the great powers divided the Balkans, Albanians paid the price.
Our fate after the end of WW1 was different to that of much of the region.
We were not freed as the others, but rather subjugated. The territory of Kosovo was conquered by the Kingdom of Serbia in 1912. From that moment on, our freedom was ruthlessly suppressed. Land expropriation, deportations, imprisonment, the lack of opportunities for subsistence and the suppression of education were the norm. A deliberate policy of colonisation was implemented. The purpose was to push Albanians out of Kosovo. Many local communities were replaced by Serbs. This changed the ethnic composition of Kosovo.
Then came WW2 and Kosovo was tricked.
There was a general consensus that Kosovo would decide its fate after the war. But the fact that some Kosovan Albanians supported the Germans and the Italians during the war, served as an excuse to keep us in Yugoslavia by force.
We were never comfortable in Yugoslavia.
There were demonstrations and uprisings in my country until President Tito made Kosovo an autonomous province. In this period education flourished, factories opened, there was a national revival. But when he died in 1980, the Serbs began to roll back the autonomy. Eventually, all hope for sovereignty was abolished in 1989 and Kosovan Albanians were driven out of all institutional life.
We created a parallel state within the state.
We had an independence referendum in 1991, but it was ignored. Kosovo then tried peaceful resistance and civil disobedience. We ran our own schools, hospitals and had a government in exile in Germany. Out of frustration that the peaceful route was not working, an underground group formed the Kosovo Liberation Army. Serbia responded immediately with reprisals. Massacres and burning down homes, led to the displacement a million people.
Eventually, there was a peace agreement in 1999 facilitated by the international community.
We accepted the peace deal, but the Serbs rejected it. They embarked on a mission of deporting almost all of the population to Albania, they killed 10,000 people, burned down 100,000 homes, raped 20,000 women. As a result, the international community decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo for 78 days. Only then Serbia back down and Kosovo was placed under the UN’s government for 7 years.
We had to build the country from scratch.
This included the institutions, legislation and education system. We are lucky to have many young people who have been educated at some of the best universities in the world, come back and help build Kosovo.
There was no intention to break up Serbia.
The UN special envoy tasked with recommending a final solution for Kosovo decided that independence was the best option. Unfortunately, Russia vetoed this solution. We were left with only one option – to declare Kosovan independence ourselves. That is what we did in 2008.
We did not want independence as a matter of prestige.
independence was the only way Kosovo could protect its freedom. We would never allow Serbia to decide our future for us, after what they did to us.
Old connections helped us.
The past alliance with the Ottoman Empire meant that Turkey has supported us all along. It lobbied on our behalf among Muslim countries. We have a good trade connection with Turkey and Turkish businesses are not afraid to invest in Kosovo. On the other hand, Western investors still see Kosovo as risky.
Kosovo has a very symbolic significance to the Serbs.
They created a myth that Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian civilisation. Historians proved this to be but a legend.
Serbia has been trying to undermine our stability.
They lobbied hard to prevent us from joining UNESO and Interpol. They scare investors and use the Serbian minority in Kosovo to push their agenda. The transition into a free market economy has not been easy because Serbia still has claims on the Kosovan property. The intention is to destabilise Kosovo from within and for Kosovo to be seen as a failed state. We have never seen our Serbian minority as a threat. They have extensive rights and although they are well integrated, they still take their instructions from Belgrade. This has got to stop.
Serbians are undermining peace in the Balkans.
The Kosovans are frustrated. Serbia has not yet come to terms with its past. They have never apologized or expressed regret. Furthermore, there are some groups of Albanians in Kosovo who advocate a unification with Albania. If Serbia keeps frustrating our efforts to join the international community, those groups will become much more prominent. The consensus in Kosovo is that it is an independent country. But if the population is disheartened, it will start looking for another solution.
We have not yet applied for the UN membership because of Russia’s threats.
Effectively and because of it, my country does not have a birth certificate that proves that it officially exists. This makes life difficult for us, as we cannot apply for EU membership without it.
We suspect that Russia is blocking our membership because of its own national interest.
The orthodox brotherhood of Serbia and Russia is only a part of the story. Perhaps Kosovo is a bargaining chip? Russia may want something in return for acknowledging Kosovo and the international community may not be prepared to pay the price for it.
The EU is critical to peace in the region
For Britain, the EU is a trading bloc. For us, the EU is much more than that. The EU is the guarantor of the peace agreements and an engine behind reforms. The EU is the only leverage we have to make Serbia accept us and to behave as a peaceful neighbour. Without peace between Kosovo and Serbia, the whole region is at risk.
We are negotiating with Serbia under the auspices of the EU.
It is a difficult route, but we are hopeful that we will soon find a mutually acceptable solution, so that we can both move on. We need to normalise the relations with Serbia, before we can join the UN, the EU and NATO.
Mr Greiçevci has been there to guide the rise of Kosovo from its very first start. His academic credentials gained both at home and in the UK, paved his way to becoming closely involved in the political life of the country and an active promoter of democracy prior to the declaration of its independence in 2007. Following this milestone event, Lirim participated in the devolution of power from the hands of an international administration into the newly established sovereign government. This placed him at the very heart of Kosovo’s negotiations with the EU. In addition to serving the Kosovan mission in the UN, before taking up his critically important diplomatic posting in London.